Monday, May 3, 2021 — During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Belgium experienced significant excess mortality. The federal statistics office Statbel recorded 30,014 deaths between 9 March and 17 May 2020. That was 8,808 more than the average for the three previous years in the same weeks. Research by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Statbel now shows that mortality due to the virus varies greatly per population group.
Katrien Vanthomme, Sylvie Gadeyne and Hadewijch Vandenheede of Interface Demography (ID) at VUB’s Department of Sociology, analysed whether the level of excess mortality in Belgians with a migration background during the first wave differed from that of those born in Belgium. They distinguished six groups besides native Belgians: migrants from the EU-15 (the EU of 2003), other European countries (non-EU), Turkey, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and the rest of the world.
The analysis shows that mortality increased in all groups. Among native Belgians aged 40 to 64, 7.0% more men and 9.7% more women died. However, the differences per group were large. In the SSA group, for instance, the excess mortality was as high as 70.3% among men and 40.2% among women.
Within the population aged 65 and older, the average mortality of all groups was much higher: 26% to 60% among men and 24% to 48% among women. But here, too, there were outliers. Turkish women aged over 65, for example, showed an excess mortality rate of 48.2%.
Not all in the same boat
The researchers emphasise that the interpretation of these figures is a complex matter in which numerous factors have to be taken into account. “The relatively high excess mortality within SSA communities is also found in other countries,’ says Vanthomme. This is often explained by the higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes in this group. ID’s analysis shows that this mortality in Belgium is related to the socio-economic characteristics of these population groups. This also applies to the high figures among older Turkish people. Moreover, unlike migrants from the SSA and North African groups, who usually speak one of the country’s languages (especially French), the Turkish group also likely experiences linguistic problems that may lead to a lower awareness of prevention measures.
According to the researchers, it seems that not only socio-economic elements, such as living and working conditions and access to healthcare, are at play, but also cultural traditions and barriers, communication skills and the wider urban context. “Our results clearly show that we are not all ’in the same boat’,’ says Vanthomme.
Their study was published in the journal SSM - Population Health.